MarkRamsey - 9/3/2007 at 09:50 PM
Seeger Speaks — and Sings — Against Stalin
BY RON RADOSH - Special to the Sun
August 31, 2007
Pete Seeger, America's best-known and most influential folksinger, wrote me a letter a few days ago. I did not expect to hear from him. Last June, I wrote in these pages about the new documentary on his life. The article ran under the headline "Time for Pete Seeger To Repent."
My complaint was that the film, good as it is, did not give a completely honest account of Mr. Seeger's politics. The filmmaker, Jim Brown, interviewed me on camera, but he did not include any of my critical remarks in the final version. In my interview, I pointed out that Mr. Seeger had been a lifelong follower of the Communist Party, changing his songs and his positions to be in accord with the ever-changing party line. He attacked the blacklist of the 1950s, which kept him off the air, but never seems to have said anything about Stalin's death list. As Martin Edlund has written in The New York Sun, Mr. Seeger has always been inseparable from his social mission. Much of it deserves praise - he was at the forefront of the struggle for civil rights - but much of it must be condemned and not hidden from sight.
In particular, I said that Mr. Seeger had supported Stalin's tyranny for so many years yet had never written a song about the Gulag. Yet some acknowledgment of his former support would have been appropriate, especially considering the songs he has sung about the Nazi death camps, which he often introduces by saying, "We must never forget."
So I felt some trepidation when I got Mr. Seeger's letter. Surely he was angry, or at the least peeved, by my article. I had been a banjo student of his in the 1950s and regarded Mr. Seeger as my childhood hero and mentor. But for decades since then, I have been publicly identified as an opponent of much of what he has believed — that the Rosenbergs were innocent, for example, or that Fidel Castro was a friend of the poor.
I almost fell off the chair when I read Mr. Seeger's words: "I think you're right - I should have asked to see the gulags when I was in [the] USSR." For years, Mr. Seeger continued, he had been trying to get people to realize that any social change had to be nonviolent, in the fashion sought by Martin Luther King Jr. Mr. Seeger had hoped, he explained, that both Khrushchev and later Gorbachev would "open things up." He acknowledged that he underestimated, and perhaps still does, "how the majority of the human race has faith in violence."
More importantly, Mr. Seeger attached the words and music for a song he had written, "thinking what Woody [Guthrie] might have written had he been around" to see the death of his old Communist dream. Called "The Big Joe Blues," it's a yodeling Jimmie Rodgers-type song, he said. It not only makes the point that Joe Stalin was far more dangerous and a threat than Joe McCarthy - a man Mr. Seeger and the old left view as the quintessential American demagogue - but emphasizes the horrors that Stalin brought.
"I'm singing about old Joe, cruel Joe," the lyrics read. "He ruled with an iron hand / He put an end to the dreams / Of so many in every land / He had a chance to make / A brand new start for the human race / Instead he set it back / Right in the same nasty place / I got the Big Joe Blues / (Keep your mouth shut or you will die fast) / I got the Big Joe Blues / (Do this job, no questions asked) / I got the Big Joe Blues."
Mr. Seeger continued in his letter to me: "the basic mistake was Lenin's faith in [Party] DISCIPLINE!" He often tells his left-wing audiences, he said, to read Rosa Luxemburg's famous letter to Lenin about the necessity of freedom of speech. And despite all of my criticisms of Mr. Seeger over the years, he ended warmly, saying: "You stay well. Keep on."
I was deeply moved that Mr. Seeger, now in his late 80s, had decided to acknowledge what had been his major blind spot - opposing social injustice in America while supporting the most tyrannical of regimes abroad. Mr. Seeger rarely performs anymore. But if he does, and if he sings this song, I suspect that few in the audience would have any idea of what it is about. And I doubt that any other singer today would cover it. Only an audience composed entirely of the now-aging old left veterans would understand it instantly. Undoubtedly, many of them would be shocked.
I phoned Mr. Seeger at his home in Beacon, NY, and thanked him for his letter and its warm and supportive tone. We spent some time reminiscing about the old days and people we knew and things we had experienced together. Turning to a discussion of the community he lives in, Mr. Seeger told me he's a friend of the Republican mayor of his town, who sponsors community events and welcomes him as a participant. Mr. Seeger, it is clear, believes in bringing people together for good works, and in reconciliation.
Mr. Seeger is still a man of the political left, and I'm certain we disagree about much. But I never thought I would hear him acknowledge the realities of Stalinism. I honor and admire him for doing so now.
August 31, 2007 Edition > Section: Arts and Letters > Printer-Friendly Version
DerekFromCincinnati - 9/3/2007 at 10:30 PM
Better late than never. I'll be spending a little time with Pete's nephew Mike Seeger for the second time in a month at the Rockbridge Festival, but I doubt his uncle's politics will come up because music and contra dance will be the center of attention, and rightly so. But, you never know. As for Pete, I seriously doubt that he would come out and say the same things about Castro. That would be interesting.
PattyG - 9/4/2007 at 12:04 AM
I thought Seeger left the communist party in 1950? I don't recall that he was a life long communist? Facing up to a worker paradise? So are you saying you are against worker's rights and you would print this on labor day?
At some point usually through out history the monarchist and bourgeois forces in places like Russia and France per say always bring this on themselves by ignoring the rights of it serfs or people. Unfortunately, it always opens the door for the Stalins and the Robs Pierre's or Hitlers to proclaim themselves as the "Man of the People" who then become as tyranical of those oppressors before them. It is a very thin line we walk, even in this country many people were murdered by the oppressive bourgeois who did everything they could to make the working man's life a living hell.
Seeger is known for his ardent political beliefs and his involvement with leftist political organizations, including the Communist Party. An article written in 2006 by an official of the American libertarian Cato Institute reported that in the early years of World War II, political opponents called him "Stalin's Songbird". His supporters called him "America's Tuning Fork" and "A Living Saint". Seeger's anti-war record Songs for John Doe, released in 1941, took the Communist Party's non-interventionist line after (Hitler and Stalin signed a non-aggression pact in 1939). At that time Seeger was also strongly anti-Franklin D. Roosevelt, owing to what he considered the President's weak support of workers' rights. After Germany’s breaking of the pact and its attack on the Soviet Union, the pacifism of Songs for John Doe were an embarrassment to the new "patriotic" line of the Communist Party and copies were quickly removed from sale. The remaining inventory was reportedly destroyed. Only a few copies exist to this day. After the invasion of the Soviet Union, Seeger and the Communist Party became strong proponents of military action against Germany; he was drafted into the Army, where he served in the Pacific. He did not serve in a combat unit, his job was to entertain the American troops with music. (Originally the Army had trained him as an airplane mechanic.) When people later asked him what he did in the war, he always answered 'I strummed my banjo'. Seeger left the Communist Party in 1950, five years before Nikita Khrushchev's Secret Speech revealed Stalin's "crimes" and led to an exodus from the Party. "I realized I could sing the same songs I sang whether I belonged to the Communist Party or not, and I never liked the idea anyway of belonging to a secret organization. He became an anti-Stalinist but remained a Socialist, in 1955 recording an album entitled Union Songs for Folkways Records (FH 5285A).
On August 18, 1955, Pete was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) where he refused to name personal and political associations stating it would violate his First Amendment rights... "I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this." Seeger's refusal to testify led to a March 26, 1957 indictment for contempt of Congress; for some years, he had to keep the federal government apprised of where he was going any time he left the Southern District of New York. He was convicted in a jury trial in March 1961, and sentenced to a year in jail, but in May 1962 an appeals court ruled the indictment to be flawed and overturned his conviction.
[Edited on 9/4/2007 by PattyG]
MarkRamsey - 9/4/2007 at 12:16 AM
"I thought Seeger left the communist party in 1950? I don't recall that he was a life long communist? Facing up to a worker paradise? So are you saying you are against worker's rights and you would print this on labor day? "
Uh....no. The fact that he was willing to write songs critical of the Nazi regime but never got around to pointing out the depravity of "Uncle Joe " until rather late in the game is what I found interesting. As for posting this on Labor Day, I would guess that some REAL labor heroes such as Lech Walesa would find anyone who could believe in "Uncle Joe" for that long just pathetic and silly. All in all, I have to admire a man who can change his mind and acknowledge poor judgement at this late stage.
PattyG - 9/4/2007 at 01:09 AM
The gulag (officially abolished as a system in 1960) had lost its fatal reality, and as Pete visited the USSR after it was abolished, I suspect even had he asked they would have avoided taking him there, it would be like Hitler showing someone from the US his concentration camps.
Well I just thought that when he left the party, he left Joe? Joe was long gone when Lech Walesa (who was a heroic figure in communist Poland) waged his strike in 1970, none the less he did great things for workers rights in a communist country.
However, what we have here is a hero fighting the same fight in a capitalist country, no Nobel Prize, plenty of jail time, vilafication and an attempt on her life.
Another American Hero - Mother Jones
Two major turning points in her career were, first, the deaths of her husband and four children during a yellow fever epidemic in Tennessee in 1867, and secondly, the loss of her property in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Forced to support herself, she became involved in the labor movement and joined the Knights of Labor, a predecessor to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or "Wobblies"), which she helped found in 1905.
Active as an organizer and educator in strikes throughout the country at the time, she was particularly involved with the United Mine Workers (UMW) and the Socialist Party of America. As a union organizer, she gained prominence for organizing the wives and children of striking workers in demonstrations on their behalf.
She became known as "the most dangerous woman in America", a phrase coined by a West Virginia District Attorney named Reese Blizzard in 1902, when she was arrested for ignoring an injunction banning meetings by striking miners. "There sits the most dangerous woman in America", announced Blizzard. "She crooks her finger—twenty thousand contented men lay down."
In 1903 Jones organized children working in mills and mines in the "Children's Crusade", a march from Kensington, Pennsylvania to Oyster Bay, New York, the home of President Theodore Roosevelt with banners demanding "We want time to play!" and "We want to go to school!" Though the President refused to meet with the marchers, the incident brought the issue of child labor to the forefront of the public agenda.
In 1913, during the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike in West Virginia, Mother Jones was charged and kept under house arrest in the nearby town of Pratt and subsequently convicted with other union organizers of conspiring to commit murder, after organizing another children's march. Her arrest raised an uproar and she was soon released from prison, after which the United States Senate ordered an investigation into the conditions in the local coal mines.
A few months later she was in Colorado, helping to organize the coal miners there. Once again she was arrested, served some time in prison, and was escorted from the State in the months leading up to the Ludlow Massacre. After the massacre she was invited to Standard Oil's headquarters at 26 Broadway to meet face-to-face with John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a meeting that prompted Rockefeller to visit the Colorado mines and introduce long-sought reforms.
By 1924, Mother Jones was in court again, this time facing varying charges of libel, slander, and sedition. In 1925, Charles A. Albert, publisher of the fledgling Chicago Times, won a stunning $350,000 judgment against the failing matriarch.
In early 1925, Jones fought off a pair of thugs who had broken into a friend's house where she was staying. After a brief struggle one intruder fled while the other was seriously injured. The wounded attacker, 54-year old Keith Gagne, later died from the wounds inflicted on him by the elderly Jones—wounds including blunt head trauma from Jones' trademark black leather boots. Police immediately arrested Jones, but she was soon released when the attackers were identified as associates of a prominent local business person.
Mother Jones remained a union organizer for the UMW affairs into the 1920s, and continued to speak on union affairs almost until her death. She released her own account of her experiences in the labor movement as The Autobiography of Mother Jones (1925). She died at the age of 93 or 100 in 1930. Mother Jones is buried in the Union Miners Cemetery in Mount Olive, Illinois, alongside miners who died in the Virden Riot of 1898. She called these miners, killed in strike-related violence, "her boys".
[Edited on 9/4/2007 by PattyG]